What Tiny Drunk Mammals Can Tell Us About Our Sex Lives

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09_SShokrae_DoubleSeven-70-Edit_SunnyShokraePhotographed By Sunny Shokrae.
A glass of red wine, a margarita, or (if we’re really getting serious) a Long Island iced tea — these elixirs may or may not get us in "the mood." We know alcohol can lower inhibitions, but new research suggests that intoxication can also affect our choice of partner.

A new study published by the National Academy of Sciences examines the mating practices of male and female prairie voles under the influence. Scientists have long been interested in the biology and mating behavior of these tiny, furry creatures because, unlike many species, they mate for life.

Researchers paired the voles with a potential mate for 24 hours. Half the pairs were offered alcohol while the other half received plain old H20. The scientists then analyzed the incidences in which the voles had sex or “huddled” — a behavior involving motionless physical contact (essentially snuggling) that is associated with partner preference.

Though only half the voles' blood alcohol concentration indicated intoxication, other effects of alcohol, such as aggression and locomotor activity (whether or not the voles could walk through a maze without stumbling), weren't different between the alcohol group and the control group, and the intoxicated voles mated with the same frequency as the sober voles.

Following this initial 24-hour stint, the researchers ditched the alcohol for an additional testing period to assess whether or not the voles preferred the first mate, dubbed the “partner,” or a new potential mate, a.k.a the “stranger.” In this followup, the control group (the water guzzlers) spent most of their time with the "partner." The alcohol-drinking group, however, showed split results: The male voles spent equal amounts of time with the "partner" and the "stranger," while the alcohol-drinking females preferred the "partner" even more than the teetotalling females did. So, while alcohol made the male voles more interested in a new lady vole, the females were all inclined to return to their original mate — sober or otherwise.

So, what do prairie-vole-mating practices have to do with our own? We asked one of the study’s researchers, Dr. Andrey Ryabinin. “Prairie voles are not little humans,” he replied. “We differ from them tremendously.” Still, this study and previous research on voles show that the biological mechanisms between the two species are very similar.

Though Ryabinin admits it’s too early to come to any conclusions about humans based on vole studies, he says this type of research may help us find better treatments for alcohol addiction and better understand how drinking affects our social bonds. But, if this study does turn out to be indicative of the way humans select mates — would this change the way you'd approach a drunken one-night-stand?